“Niggers put the ape in rape.” If an opinion columnist wrote that on the websites attached to their newspapers, we’d be facing questions in the Commons, earnest debates on Newsnight, and a lazy column about how “nigger” isn’t really a bad word after all scribbled on the back of a fag packet by one of the professional attention-seekers at Spiked!. This sentiment was posted on Twitter though, and nobody really cares because, well . . . Twitter.
It can be pretty eye-opening to search Twitter for words like “nigger”, “paki” and similar slurs; and by “eye-opening” I mean that it makes you want to carve your testicles or ovaries out of your bleeding flesh so that humankind can be put out of its misery as quickly as possible. Bigotry, harassment, defamation, the outing of rape victims – all of these are routine on social media, and yet few on the left have suggested that press regulation should apply to Twitter or Facebook.
Of course we wouldn’t treat Facebook or Twitter like we would a newspaper, because Twitter is Twitter – it’s not the news . . . is it? A recent Pew Research Centre study looked at the percentage of Americans getting their news from TV, radio, newspapers or the internet. Television still holds the lead at 55 per cent; but 39 per cent get their news online, the gap having closed by 12 points in four years. A third get their news from radio, while newspapers languish in last place at 29 per cent. Among under-30s the change is more extreme: only 34 per cent got their news from the TV, while 33 per cent got it from social media, against just 13 per cent from newspapers . . . and yes, that includes their digital editions.
The “press” isn’t some distinct entity or industry, and other than for a few decades in the mid-twentieth century it never really has been. The press is people, and unfortunately a lot of people have really shitty views.
One of those people is the Mail’s Richard Littlejohn, a man who approaches the topic of sexuality the way a mildly horny dog investigates a lizard; fearful yet irresistibly drawn. Suggesting that children might be traumatised by their teacher’s gender reassignment, he cruelly remarked: “He’s not only trapped in the wrong body, he’s in the wrong job.” The teacher in question, Lucy Meadows, later died; and now a petition is calling for the prize-winning columnist to be sacked.
As always, you can find worse online. Littlejohn can rely on support from the strange little men who inhabit the Stormfront forum: insecure, dim-witted losers who are frightened of foreigners and therefore a key tabloid demographic. “Argh! Wibble! Sodomy!” they wail from behind their cowardly cloaks of anonymity (I’m paraphrasing, slightly). Not that their support is entirely without reservation: “Richard Littlejohn is of course a paid puppet for Big Jew, even if he is right about this,” notes one. Is Stormfront an extreme example? No, just try doing a realtime search on Twitter for “trannies”. Or indeed “Jews” – “Glad the Nazi’s (sic) killed a fuck load of Jews” exclaims one waggish tweep.
To call Littlejohn a bully overestimates his level of agency. He is a bloated parody of a right-wing columnist; a pantomime villain wheeled out to mutter the same faux-angry catchphrases week after week with the apathetic delivery of a Punch and Judy puppet operated by a bitter old man who secretly hates children. I doubt Meadows was anything more to him than a convenient hook on which to hang that week’s drivel about the evils of “PC gone mad” – to assume otherwise would be to imply that he puts thought into anything he writes, and it’s just as likely that my washing machine is sentient.
I’d like nothing more than to see him sacked, but Littlejohn is the melting, mildew-infested tip of a giant iceberg of piss. His behaviour has been fairly mild in comparison to other journalists, let alone the wider internet. As a focal point for public anger, he is little more than a convenient avatar; a man who embodies the essence of the right-wing tabloids we hate. If Richard Littlejohn didn’t exist, you’d have to make him up.
His column contained nothing that would count as discrimination under the PCC code, though. It’s this insidiousness that makes the monstering of vulnerable people by the press so difficult to tackle – any attempt at regulation can easily be side-stepped with coded language, scare quotes, or the use of a convenient third party to hang your views on. The same applies to Stuart Pike’s original reporting in the Accrington Observer; and rightly so unless you believe that a local journalist should be prevented from seeking out and reporting the views of local parents, however contemptuous we might think those views to be. It’s hard to see how any new system of press regulation could have made in impact in this case.
Still, it would be lovely to shut him up, which is why the reaction of the Trans Media Watch campaign group to this mess has been so impressive, tweeting: “As a charity we prefer to build positive relationships and bring about change through education, providing training and resources for media.”
"We understand the anger behind calls for Richard Littlejohn to be sacked,” they told me. “He has persistently belittled trans people in his columns, but we feel that the real problem is bigger than one man and we don't want to see him become a scapegoat, allowing others to avoid responsibility.”
The reaction of the trans community and allies has been wonderful to watch, and will send a powerful message to columnists tempted to write similar bullshit in the future. My worry though is that we risk fixating on convenient villains at the expense of addressing the wider problem. It’s comforting to imagine that most people aren’t bigots and that without the Daily Mail these views wouldn’t be so widespread, but the reality is that Littlejohn still represents millions of people; people who have the same right to their opinions that we do, whether we like it or not. Sacking or censoring him changes nothing.
For all the myths about Rupert Murdoch’s power, the press has become just another part of the web, indistinct from the parts around it. Newspapers like the Mail and Guardian are becoming multi-author blog networks with mostly American audiences, even as blogs of all shapes and sizes become primary sources of news reporting. At the heart of all this, Twitter and Facebook have become more important at deciding which news gets read than any newspaper editor. In the face of this change, the Leveson inquiry and the Royal Charter it spawned have been defined by their total inability to define “the press” in terms beyond “we’ll know it when we see it”.
Nobody can explain why a damaging statement on one website should be treated any differently to an equally damaging statement on another, just because that website used to be printed on bits of paper and posted to people’s houses, or is run by a non-profit, or employs fewer than 250 journalists, or whatever other post-hoc test you want to devise in an attempt to ring-fence the “bad guys” (and as the Guardian ’s director of editorial legal services, Gill Phillips, points out, to do so may fall foul of the European Court of Human Rights). Neither will a system applied to 0.00001 per cent of domain names make any difference to the wider problem of bigoted attitudes online. Either you want to regulate the internet, or you don’t.
If I had my way, the seedy little tabloids I don’t like would be banned and their bullying hacks thrown in the stocks, but that’s precisely why I shouldn’t have my way – because ultimately I’m demanding that a body should be set up to censor someone I don’t like, and that’s a really shitty way to approach an incredibly complex problem, one liable to cause many more problems than it solves.
The way to deal with corrosive attitudes in society is to expose them and deal with them, not silence people and hope they go away. As Trans Media Watch pointed out to me, the petition to sack Littlejohn “has shown clearly what the public thinks of transphobic journalism”. Hopefully at least some writers and editors are paying attention.